Blue Ridge Mountains

All the Truth


        Emma was smoothing a blanket across her daughter’s shoulders when she first heard the voices. They rose in quiet syllables from the open window, long vowel sounds combined with the rolling consonance of her backyard creek. Occasionally a girl’s high laugh punctuated the lower tones, then all fell silent.
        She stood and walked to the glass, her eyes wandering downhill past the sandbox and swingset and lightning-warped maple, to where the moon stretched its thin fingers in the water. There she saw them—three college students with silver beer cans glinting. They often appeared this time of year, like ladybugs or garden spiders. Nomadic party-goers, in the last week before graduation, who abandoned their fraternities to drink in the rural Virginia moonlight.
        One mile east, old T. A. Hillyer had designated a corner of his farmland as an annual campground for the undergraduates. It was a tradition he had inaugurated when his son was at the college; Hillyer donated port-a-potties, while the students brought tents and kegs and guitars and hired blue-grass bands to accompany their starlit debaucheries. Earlier that evening, Emma had heard strains of Soldier’s Joy sifting through her poplar leaves. She had listened on her front porch while the chords, in delicate bubbles of sound, floated east toward the Blue Ridge. Usually the students stayed close to the source of that music. This trio now wandering her yard were probably some of the strays, the loners who preferred to hook up in private pastures.
        She blamed herself. Each spring Emma invited senior English majors to an end-of-the year picnic, circulating detailed maps, so that the location of this peaceful meadow, with its mallards and blue herons and foggy mountains in the distance, was common knowledge among crowds of young strangers.
        Her daughter’s bedside clock glowed: 10:45. Emma had let Maggie stay up late since it wasn’t a school night, and now the child curled on her side, murmuring “What’s that noise?”
        “Students.” Emma kissed her forehead. “Sleep now while I chase them away.”
        Downstairs, she lifted a sweater off the hook beside the door and stepped onto the cold slate porch. Rob was visiting his mother in West Virginia, otherwise he would have handled this, tromping in heavy boots and wielding the baseball bat that leaned against their coat rack. "They take advantage of you," he always said. "You're too nice to them."
        "Yes," she invariably replied. "I’m way too nice." Now Emma walked barefoot down the yard, wet clover seeping between her toes.
        Across the creek the sycamores glittered with lightning bugs. They had risen from the grass just after sunset, dozens ascending in silent flashes while Maggie chased them, darting around the yard with hands cupped in half moons. She liked to watch the captured bugs crawl through the crevices between her fingers, then spread their wings and re-launch, unfazed by her brief interference in their nightly routine. The insects now hovered high among the tree limbs, and Emma supposed it was the sparkling branches that had attracted the students—all those lights blinking like hundreds of cameras at a rock concert.
        “Hello,” she called as she approached the flat creekside, and the students’ conversation stopped as they turned to face her. She recognized them—middling young scholars who had struggled through her British survey last fall. Perhaps this was a Wordsworthian act, this impulse to roam the countryside and linger by moonlit streams. Perhaps these kids’ beer-sotted brains would finally grasp the concept of the sublime.
        Be patient, Emma chided herself. When she was the students’ age she too had carried six-packs of beer in brown paper bags, searching woods and riverbanks for the best midnight party settings. Sometimes she and her friends had gathered beside a local pond; once they had played a drunken truth or dare inside a cemetery. But Emma would never have had the gall to trespass on a professor’s property, and that seemed to be the difference between this generation and her own—their sense of entitlement, as if all adults existed to serve them.
        She liked one of the students, a tall brown-haired boy named Jacob. All fall he had been a talker, the sort who always had an opinion about Coleridge or Keats. Whenever the discussion lagged Jacob could be counted on to liven things up, although his papers had been disappointing, full of provocative statements, but lacking the careful thought needed to support a thesis. In the end she feared he was all flash and no substance, and yet, on a dull afternoon, flash counted for something.
        Beside him stood a girl whose name Emma never could remember. She was thoroughly unremarkable, in faded jeans and year-round flip-flops, her face thin, her flat hair neither brown nor blonde. In class, she had seemed to desire nothing more than to merge with the surrounding walls, which was why Emma had tried to draw her out, coaxing her with open questions: “What does it mean to you, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty?’” Invariably the girl would shrug and smile, apparently assuming that any gesture of submission would suffice.
        When the third student turned to face her, Emma flinched. She knew him all too well, this sluggish, drawling blonde—Kyle Caldwell—the son of an alumnus with deep pockets. Kyle had a way of looking into her face much too intently, as if each of their encounters was a staring contest that Emma would eventually lose. Now she dropped her eyes and saw that the boy had pale, fleshy legs, fluorescent in the moonlight, which reminded her of his paragraphs—flabby and riddled with platitudes.
        Still, she had given Kyle a B, in her cowardly generosity. Rarely did she add the dreaded minus to her Bs, that infinitesimal sign that a student’s work had slipped below Holford College’s inflated average. She supposed she didn’t want to face the students’ nagging protests, or the indignation of helicopter parents. Avoidance of confrontation was Emma’s specialty; she imagined herself as a kind of intellectual harbor pilot, steering away from the red buoys, constantly feeling for the main channel. But if anyone deserved her wrath, it was Kyle Caldwell, not because of his flaccid intellect—that was common enough—but because of her suspicion that Kyle was a thief.
        He had come to her office once, to talk about a paper that was due the next morning. He hadn’t chosen a topic and wanted to be fed one; Emma envisioned him as a gaping maw, always ready to ingest. She had wanted to throw him out, to condemn his aura of privileged sloth, but instead she had offered the usual admonitions against leaving papers to the last minute. He would have no time for revision, no time to digest, and Kyle had borne the lecture like a fixated poodle, locked in unblinking attention and confident that the bone would be given at the end.
        After he was gone Emma had stared at her bulletin board with the strange conviction that something was missing. Was it her heart, or her courage? Was it the intellectual standards that she had compromised years ago? She couldn’t quantify the absence until the next afternoon, when she saw the item on Kyle’s backpack—a blue and white button that said “War is not the Answer.” He must have taken it off her board when she left the office to xerox a poem for him. She didn’t mind his having the button—they were meant to be distributed. What rankled was the feeling that he was subtly mocking her. Beside the old McCain/Palin buttons that pockmarked his pack, her little circle of peace looked small and harassed.
        Emma had done nothing except to counsel her seething brain. Let it go, let it go. That was her mantra these days—Let it all go. She needed a mantra, anything to lessen the irritation that had been festering in her mind. Over the past few years she had felt a persistent crankiness seeping into her thoughts, and she couldn’t tell whether it was a symptom of middle age, or an attitude contagious in American popular culture. Anger seemed to be the nation’s latest pasttime, with all the road rage and Mommy rage, bridezillas and bitches and chefs-from-hell. Anger was marketable.
        Emma could never pinpoint the cause of her own frustrations. Was it merely the most difficult students, with their shameless expectations? Or was it her department chair, who always inquired about her daycare arrangements, and never about her research? Or was she bothered most of all by the anonymous strangers who left beer bottles and McDonalds cups in the tall grass along the side of her road? Every afternoon when she drove home, plastic grocery bags waved from the branches of redbud trees.
        Kyle Caldwell, now teetering from foot to foot in a tipsy dance, seemed to embody all three of her grievances. Throughout the semester he had expected rewards for his most mediocre efforts, and on top of that he had kept calling her “Mrs. Greene,” no matter how often she corrected him with “Professor” or “Dr.” And that beer can in his hand—that was liable to end up tossed into her neighbors’ Queen Anne’s Lace.
        She felt more antagonistic toward this boy than toward any student she had ever encountered, and it wasn’t only the missing button—that small crime might easily have been forgiven. But then had come the occasion, shortly before exams, when she realized that her bracelet was missing from her office desk. It was a loose, silver charm bracelet, a good luck memento from adolescence that she often stretched beside her keyboard. She had noticed its disappearance after a department meeting. Her office door had been standing open, and when she returned she had immediately sensed the change. After searching through stacks of papers and books, Emma remembered that Kyle had passed her in the hall on the way back from the meeting, coming from the direction of her office.
        In a fit of petulance she had telephoned the student president of the Honor Committee. He was an English major, a former student of hers with a sharp mind that she respected, but when she described her suspicions about Kyle the Kleptomaniac, the young man was skeptical.
        “You didn’t see him take the bracelet?”
        “No, but I told you he has my button.”
        “Those buttons are everywhere. How do you know that one is yours?”
        “I guess I can’t prove it.”
        “Look, we can keep an eye on this guy in case there are other complaints. But in the meantime, why don’t you wait a while and see if the bracelet turns up?”
        He was right. Emma hadn’t seen Kyle take it; she had no concrete evidence, and to be honest, she was prone to losing things. It would be humiliating to make an accusation, then find the bracelet a month later, fallen behind her desk. Let it go, she had told herself. Don’t make a fuss.
        But now, seeing Kyle in her yard with his can of Budweiser, probably pissing on her flowers, she felt the months of simmering tension start to boil.
        “Hello professor,” Jacob said. “We’re sorry to intrude.” He came forward with a broad smile. “It’s such a beautiful night. We were driving by and saw the full moon on your creek, and we had to stop and absorb the view.”
Jacob always spoke with a veneer of politeness that Emma suspected was pure affectation, but she appreciated it anyway. His pronunciation was so clear, she wondered if Jacob didn’t drink, or maybe he was the type of kid whose tongue was clarified by booze, whose thoughts gained a sharper edge at a certain blood-alcohol content.
        “I didn’t hear your car,” she said, and he pointed uphill to where a Range Rover was parked at the side of the road. She nodded. The students were always driving enormous vehicles, oblivious to the rape of Mother Nature.
Emma glanced at the moon, now disappearing behind a cloud. “I’m afraid I have to hurry you along. My daughter is trying to sleep.”
        “Of course,” Jacob kept smiling.
        “Do you mind if I use your bathroom before we go?” The invisible girl had spoken.
        “Sure.” Emma pointed up toward the house. “It’s on the ground floor, next to the playroom with all the toys.”
        Kyle accompanied the girl, staggering uphill toward the lit porch, and as Emma watched she saw him place his arm around the girl’s shoulders, both of them breaking into laughter once they had moved beyond their teacher’s radius. Emma moved to follow them, not wanting Kyle unsupervised in her house, but Jacob was still talking.
        “You can see the Big Dipper, it’s upside down.” He pointed directly overhead. “And Mars, and maybe Venus.”
Emma wasn’t in the mood for an astronomy lesson. “If my husband were here, he’d be chasing you off with his baseball bat.”
        “Sorry again, professor. But this is a gorgeous spot.”
        Emma’s eyes followed the creek downstream, across her neighbor’s pasture, where a skeletal barn stood sentinel at the foot of Sleeping Elephant Mountain. The beauty of the mountain’s black silhouette, rising from trunk to forehead, to the bony pachyderm spine, softened her mind. This young man, after all, was not the problem. Jacob appreciated Shelley.
        “What are you doing after graduation?” she asked.
        “Kyle and I” —Emma cringed at the sound of the thief’s name spoken aloud—“are going to spend the summer at his parents’ beach house. Then we’re starting work on Wall Street. His dad is a senior vice president at Goldman Sachs.”
        “How lucky for you.” Emma turned abruptly and began to walk uphill with Jacob hurrying at her side. What a shame that he was planning to follow his friend’s lesser star. She felt as if Kyle had stolen one more thing.
        “You and your friend seem inseparable.”
        “Yes,” Jacob nodded. “We went to prep school together. He probably wouldn’t have gotten through without me. I was always getting him out of trouble.”
        And now his father is paying you back, Emma mused, but not aloud. Never aloud.
        When they stepped inside the house they discovered Kyle and the girl coming down from upstairs. What were they doing up there, Emma wondered. Searching her bedroom? Laughing at her dirty laundry? Keeping Maggie awake? There was no limit to these kids’ rudeness.
        At least the girl seemed embarrassed. “Thanks for the bathroom,” she mumbled, heading for the door. Kyle began to follow silently, until Emma glimpsed something purple sticking out of his pocket.
        “Wait a second.” She blocked his exit. Face to face with the boy’s burgeoning double chin, Emma reached toward his hip pocket and pulled out a three-inch plastic mermaid with sparkling lavender hair. Behind her Jacob emitted a slow, hissing “Chriiiisssst.”
        “Empty your pockets,” she said. Kyle stood there dull as a plate.
        “Empty your goddamn pockets.” Emma's voice had dropped half an octave, into the low animal growl she usually reserved for those evenings when Rob was more than an hour late and hadn’t bothered to call.
Kyle reacted instantly. He pulled his pockets inside out, and across the floor tumbled half a dozen Polly Pockets, rubbery clothes shed around tiny naked limbs.
        “You are fucking pathetic,” Jacob spoke, trying to gain control. “I’m sorry, professor. Kyle’s an idiot.”
        “What were you going to do with them?” Emma leaned her face within inches of Kyle’s nose. “Have a party? Use them for some perverted drinking game? You know Holford has an honor code. I could have you expelled.”
        “You sure could,” Jacob had taken his friend by the elbow and was negotiating him in a wide arc around Emma. “But he isn’t worth the trouble, is he?”
        She followed them to the door, where the girl was waiting.
        “Get out of my house,” Emma hissed.
        “Yes ma’am. I’m sorry, professor.” Jacob shoved Kyle out onto the porch, down to the brick walkway. Last of all went the girl, who reached up to push the screen door out of her way.
        In that instant Emma saw it. The flash of jangling silver.
        “My bracelet!” She ran onto the porch and grabbed the girl’s wrist, then turned toward Kyle, holding up the girl’s arm as if she had won a prize fight. “You gave my bracelet to your girlfriend!”
        The girl wrenched her arm free and hurried to Kyle’s side, rubbing her wrist and glaring back at Emma. For once Jacob had nothing to say, his mouth gaping at the offending jewelry.
        Only Kyle managed to speak, muttering under his breath, “Crazy bitch.”
        “What did you call me?" For a moment Emma felt dizzy, overwhelmed by the rush of a thousand angry words erupting into her brain, flying from her mouth like molten rock.
        "You fat, fucking little thief! I’m turning you in to the Honor Committee! You can kiss your diploma goodbye!” She spun around and yanked the screen door open.
        “Now wait a minute.” Jacob hopped up the stairs and approached with palms out, conciliatory. “You don’t want to do that. Seven more days and Kyle will be gone. You’ll never have to see him again. Why bother with all that trouble?” He smiled into her eyes, and Emma realized that she had misjudged this boy. He wasn’t a promising young man; he was an operator, a wheel-greaser, the slick facilitator of his criminal side-kick.
        She returned his smile with a sarcastic smirk: “What? Afraid you’ll lose your meal ticket?”
        Jacob’s smile disappeared.
        Emma pulled the screen door back and stepped inside. Never again would she take this crap. Never again would she be the nice professor, the easy B+, the woman who gave unlimited extensions and hosted annual picnics. “Kyle will be hearing from the Honor Committee tomorrow morning.”
        “You can't do that,” Jacob murmured.
        “Watch me.” Emma swung the main door shut.
        Except that it didn’t shut. Not all the way. Jacob had wedged his foot inside and was now inching the door forward with his shoulder.
        “I just want to talk to you," he said.
        Emma heaved her weight against the wooden door, trying to crush the intruding toes, even as she felt them slowly advance.
        “C’mon,” Jacob said, his voice oily-smooth. “Let’s work this out.”
        And suddenly Emma recognized how dark were the surrounding trees, and how far she lived from her nearest neighbor. Her mind flew to her kitchen knives, German blades propped in their wooden block, handles spread in invitation, and she almost laughed out loud. All those years of mute acceptance, all the anger she had suppressed, to culminate in a student's foot, and now his knee, his leg, pushing into her home.
        “I just want a word,” Jacob said. Through the opening door Emma glimpsed Kyle walking back up the porch stairs, his expression—what was it?—almost smiling.
        “One word,” Jacob repeated, as Emma’s fingers groped toward the handle of Rob's wooden bat. Upstairs, she heard a stifled whimper from Maggie, watching through the open inches of her bedroom door.